Friday, October 9, 2009

Truly Natural Hair Care

We've covered myths about hair care and talked about some chemicals to avoid--let's talk about caring for your hair without subjecting yourself to loads of synthetic chemicals. But first, we need to understand the physiology/chemistry of hair.

Hair is quite complex on a microscopic level. There are three parts of the hair strand--the cortex, the medulla and the cuticle. The cortex is the innermost layer of the hair, comprised of tiny coiled strands. The cortex is very important because it determines the shape and color of your hair. The shape of the tiny coils determine if your hair is straight, wavy or curly. When you style your hair through heat, you're temporarily re-shaping the molecular bonds of these coils within your hair. When you get your hair wet, it disrupts these molecular bonds and your hair goes back to it's normal texture. Perms and chemical straightening treatments permanently reconfigure these chemical bonds. The cortex is also the home of the pigment of your hair. When you get your hair colored, pigments are deposited in the hair's cortex.

The medulla is a hollow shaft that appears only in some hair strands. Scientists aren't quite sure of the function of the medulla, however, they do know that it does help determine how light and color reflect off the hair.

The cuticle is probably the most important part of the hair--it's the part of the hair that you see and feel. It protects the cortex and determines the strength of the hair. The cuticle is set up in layers, almost like scales (see photo). When hair is damaged, these scales are broken or lifted up. The more lifted the scales of the cuticle are, the more prone your hair is to damage. When the scales are lifted, hair feels brittle, dull, dry, and hard to comb through. (This is where the concept of "dry" hair comes from.) But when the scales are laying flat, the cortex is protected and the hair is stronger. So the key to healthy hair is simply to make sure that the cuticle is laying flat and tight. Okay, I'll admit--there is some moisture content of both water and oil to healthy hair, but you don't need a deep conditioner to get it there. Dry hair problems rarely have to do with moisture content--the problem is the cuticle is raised or damaged. Just getting your hair wet saturates the hair shaft, and typically the scalp creates enough oil to give the hair an adequate amount of lipids. The real key to healthy hair is to tighten up the cuticle so the moisture stays there and the cortex is protected. So, how do you get your cuticle to lay flat? It's actually quite simple.

When hair is alkaline, the cuticle is raised. When hair is acidic, the cuticle lays flat. When you get a color treatment, a strong alkali (like ammonia) is applied to the hair--this makes the cuticle open up so the colors can then be deposited in to the cortex of the hair. On a daily basis, you want to make sure that your hair is in an acidic state so that it is strong, shiny and manageable.

Most shampoos you find in stores are made with synthetic detergents. No matter how gentle they are, these detergents can break down the cuticle of the hair over time--that's why your hair feels so weird and hard to comb through after you shampoo, and why you have to use conditioner. Hair cuticle is made up of keratin--a type of protien. Conditioners contain hydrolyzed protiens, polymers (like polyquaterniums), and silicone products (like dimethicone and petasiloxane) to replace the broken down keratin of your hair. If you don't strip the hair with detergents in the first place, you'll find you don't need conditioner.

Here are a few TRULY natural options that don't strip hair, protect and acidify it.

Natural Saponins
One great option is to use an herbal rinse with herbs containing natural saponins. Saponins are naturally-ocurring compounds that act like soap, lifting dirt and oil. A few plants with natural saponins are soapnuts, soapwort root, and yucca root. You can make a tea with one or more of these herbs and rinse your hair with this tea. It won't give you much lather, but the tea will gently clean your hair.

The down-side: you have to make the tea every time you wash your hair

The upside: a really natural and gentle option.

Clay Shampoo
Clays are another great natural choice. Clays absorb oils and lift them off your hair without damaging hair. (You're probably all familiar with Terressentials Pure Earth Hair Wash). You just apply a big dollop of mud to your hair, massage scalp, and rinse out. It may feel weird not having lather in your hair, but it works!

The down-side: Clays are ever so slightly alkaline, so be sure to follow up with a diluted vinegar rinse so your hair is acidic. Also, can be a bit messy having clay in your bath or shower.

The up-side: No chemicals on your skin or down the drain.

Castile Soap Shampoo

This is the method that great-grandma used! A soap, not a detergent, cleans the hair. You still get that lather that you're used to, and you don't have to worry about chemical preservatives, detergents, or coatings. Wash with a gentle castile soap and then follow up with a vinegar rinse. Soap is naturally alkaline--that's why we recommend using vinegar after our shampoo. The vinegar tightens up that cuticle, making the hair strong, smooth and shiny again.

The down-side: if you have hard water, soap creates soap scum in your hair. (Although there are some workarounds)

The Up-Side: great lather with no chemicals.

One note--some castile-based shampoos add vinegar or lemon juice to the shampoo to lower its pH. However, you're still going to need to use a vinegar rinse if you want your hair to be acidic. When you add an acid to the soap, a chemical reaction ocurrs and the alkali is neutralized. If the overall pH of the soap reaches neutral or acidic, the soap is rendered completely useless and it turns in to slime. So just because the castile soap shampoo has vinegar or lemon juice added to it, it's still alkaline.

No matter what method you prefer, when you switch from a conventional shampoo and conditioner, there is a hair detox period where the previous chemical coatings you've been using are being removed. During this time your hair may be flighty or just feel funky. The detox period usually lasts about a week to ten days. But after these chemical coatings are removed, your hair will be soft, shiny and truly healthy. Because these chemicals are being removed, some damage may be revealed. Don't think that the natural shampoo is damaging your hair--it's simply revealing the damage. If you do notice that you have split ends or damage--get a trim. Your hair will instantly feel healthier.

Have more questions? Visit this page.

NOTE: Be sure to rinse the shampoo out with water first before you do the vinegar rinse. Otherwise the soap turns to slime in your hair that's hard to get out.


Maeve said...

How wet do you need to get your hair with the vinegar rinse? Complete soaked through? I ask because I have very long hair (to my hips) and just pouring a bottle of vinegar rinse over it doesn't seem to do it. Without resorting to dunking my head in a bucket of vinegary water, do you have any suggestions?

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Maeve--if you have long or thick hair, you may need to repeat the vinegar rinse a few times. You do need to make sure it gets all over your hair. When you rinse it out too, it helps distribute the vinegar. You need to pour enough on to feel like you can comb your fingers through your hair without a lot of resistance. This may mean that you do the rinse five times or even use a bigger bottle. Sometimes I'll even fill up an empty gallon container with my vinegar rinse. If you use a gallon container, fill to the line on the lip of the bottom, and then the rest with water. Also, when you shampoo your hair, be gentle. Don't tangle it all when you're scrubbing and it will be a lot easier to comb out. Hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

I never tried rinsing my hair with vinegar and I'm wondering if it leaves any smell?

Unknown said...

I use bubble and bee's organic Lemon castile soap shampoo. It works very well. However, when I first tried the vinegar method of rinsing the hair with a whole bottle of diluted apple cider vinegar, it worked fine but I found my hair smelled very strongly of vinegar, to the point where it bothered my girlfriend. Now I just use a very small amount of undiluted apple cider vinegar after shampooing and it works perfectly in detangling and softening my hair. Perhaps I only need a little because I have very short hair. However, though it no longer seems to linger I still dislike the smell of vinegar when I apply it. I've thought about adding a few drops of essential orange oil to the vinegar to improve the smell.
Is this something that would be okay to try or would it be too strong/harsh or affect the ph levels in a bad way?

Stephanie Greenwood said...

I personally have not found that my hair smells like vinegar once it's dry. However, others do detect a smell on themselves. I have noticed, though, that distilled white vinegar seems to leave less of a smell that apple cider vinegar.

Phillip--adding essential oils isn't a bad idea. It won't affect the pH of the vinegar.

Also--you can use citric acid or lemon juice instead of vinegar.

Anonymous said...

Aloha Stephanie! Thanks for the interesting and informative hair care series! I was wondering, would it be ok to shampoo with castile soap, rinse with vinegar, and then condition? Will conditioning after the vinegar rinse be a bad idea? Also, what type of vinegar is best to use? I've never tried this method before, but I'm very excited to give it a shot!

Stephanie Greenwood said...

You can condition after the vinegar rinse, however, I think you'll find you won't need to.

Anonymous said...

I have been using a castile soap with a vinegar rinse for a few months now. At first, the smell really bothered me, and it was kind of a pain to pour that jug of vinegar into a bottle and dilute it every time I took a shower (I spilled a lot in my tub!). My solution was to get a large spray bottle and fill it with half vinegar and half water. I have shoulder length hair, and about 15 or 20 sprays effectively rinses and conditions my hair. I don't have to use anything else.

Stephanie Greenwood said...

That's a good tip--I'll have to try that!

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephanie! I was wondering what is the best type of vinegar to use? Also, would it be a good idea to use the vinegar solution as a leave-in too? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephanie! What's a good ratio of vinegar:water to use?

Stephanie Greenwood said...

I recommend one to two tablespoons of vinegar per cup of water.

Anonymous said...


I have fine, slightly wavy brown hair that frizzes up in humidity and lays flat but gets a little fly-away when it's dry. For the longest time I had trouble using liquid castile soap because it would leave my hair kinda oily (especially on the top/back of my head), even with the baking soda rinse followed by the vinegar rinse. Then I tried castile bar soap as shampoo and it's been amazing. It rinses clean, no matter where I am or what kind of water I use (hard water or soft), and leaves my hair shiny, squeaky clean yet touchably soft. When I follow the bar soap with the vinegar rinse it works even better. My hair is silky, shiny, soft and not frizzy or flyaway. It almost looks better than my best day at a salon-- and totally natural! Is there any reason why the bar soap works when the liquid soap doesn't? Why do you think that is?

Thanks again for your great three-part blog series on truly natural hair care. It was both informative and inspirational!

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Thanks for your kind words!

There are a lot of factors that would affect the outcome of the shampoo liquid vs. the bar. It all just depends on the particular products you're using. There are different ratios of oils, glycerin, herbs, maybe even clays, that help to cleanse the hair. Let me know the particular products you're using and I'll be happy to help you figure out the mystery!

Anonymous said...


I've used all different kinds of bar soaps-- including Dr. Bronner's baby mild, citrus and peppermint, and Chagrin Valley's "shampoo bars" in Cafe Moreno, Chamomile & Citrus, Herb Garden, Honey Beer & Egg, Mud & Clay, Olive & Babassu, Rosemary Mint and Summer Sunshine-- and they all work just about the same. In fact, I thought the honey or olive soap might be more "moisturizing", but they also left my hair squeaky and tangly enough that I still had to follow with the vinegar rinse in order to smooth and condition my hair. Any thoughts on why that is?

Stephanie Greenwood said...

I'd say it's probably the amount of product you're using. With a bar you're likely getting less product in your hair than with a gel.

M.A. te riele said...

Hi there,
Just a few questions: do you rinse out with water after the vinegar rinse? I have waistlong hair and simply dunk my head into a pot filled with vinegar and water... most practical for me.
And by the way I've used my french "savon de Marseille" as a shampoo and it's just fine.
Regarding your description of the anatomy of hair, I'dd like to add that curls are a result of the cuticle being lifted. Naturally curly hair is per definition "dry"/coarse. If I can find the source I remember this from, I'll post it later on.
This explains why I have either coarse hair with curls of soft hair with waves. Sadly enough there is another factor at work as well: the curls are disappearing with the length of my hair.
My daughter happens to have more and tighter curls, a bit of African heritage seeping through and I can't even make it wet under the shower! I really can't. The water doestn't get through, think of sheep and you got what I mean. This wouldn't be a problem if it werent for the fact that combing her hair wet is much easier than dry, just as it is for me. Which is why I laugh when people tell me I should never comb wet hair only dry. Well that would be a. rather painful b. break lots of hair c. make my curls disappear (just like wearing it in a pony tail for a few hours).
Any tips for combing her hair? I really don't like it when it is full of dreads after a few days of not combing it...
Thank you for your great website. If it weren't for the shipping costs and general hassle of sending overseas (Europe), I'd be your customer.
Warm regards, Maria Anna

Jenn said...

Hey Stephanie,I wasnt digging the vinegar rinse so after researching getting your hair back to its original ph level,I came across using aloe vera. I went to mrs. Green market & got liquid aloe vera & used it last night for the 1st time, I gotta say it was an instant positive result. It even helped as a conditioner! Thank you for your hard work & time to chat!